Plastic is a hot topic in the European Parliament, with the Parliament voting in favour of the Commission’s Plastics Strategy on September 13. For an insider take on the EU plastic debate, we sat down with Italian Green MEP and former marine biologist Marco Affronte to discuss the impact of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean, political prospects in Italy for confronting the plastic crisis, and how recent EU legislation is a landmark step in the global fight to clean up our oceans.
Green European Journal: What is the situation of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean today and how have we reached this point?
Marco Affronte: The latest data shows that the Mediterranean has a higher percentage of waste than other seas, which is to be expected because the Mediterranean is a closed sea with the only exit being Gibraltar. Everything we put into the Mediterranean, which includes but is not limited to plastic, tends to remain there for a long time. We’ve arrived at this point because, as usual, we humans solve a problem without thinking about the consequences of that solution. We needed a material that was practical and resilient, and then only afterwards did we realise that it lasts so long that it accumulates and becomes a problem, particularly for our seas.
Rimini, my home town, is a place where the impact of plastic pollution is really becoming visible on numerous levels – especially on the beaches and in the sea, where a lot of incoming waste can be spotted in the morning. When the rivers are running high with water, they also carry a lot of waste. Tourists don’t realise the extent of the problem because during peak season the beaches are cleaned every morning, making it less obvious, but the problem is there nonetheless.
I’ve also worked for nearly 15 years as a marine biologist with dolphins and sea turtles in the Adriatic, and we proved that plastic waste can be found inside of these animals: in their stomachs, for example, or even in tiny fragments when microplastics are eaten by small fish. So the consequences are visible by normal people both in an everyday context, but also on the level of scientific research it is evident that the impact of plastics on marine organisms is a strong one. Citizens have started to realise that plastic waste is really an issue. You often hear in the media – in newspapers, on TV – that plastic has become a problem. In the European Union, it is also a prominent issue.
Why is plastic a political issue, and how can we make it understood as such so that the environment is recognised as a political concern rather than a technical policy one?
It’s a political question because the type of interventions required at this point no longer concern only science. Science can help – it can tell us, for example, what some of the alternatives to plastic can be – but this is a global problem and if we don’t do anything, it’s only going to get worse with time. It’s obvious that we need to change the way we interact with the environment, and with plastic, and we need to do it at the political level. We need to take resolute decisions, as we have done in recent months in Europe. We need to stop and intervene because what we have done so far has led us to this crisis.
It is a good legislative proposal that the Parliament has put a lot of work into, but we can make it better, stronger, and maximise its impact on the most important regulations.
But it is also clear that politics happens on different levels: on the legislative level, where the EU is currently working on lots of different initiatives, and then on the level of the individual citizen, who can enact a political solution by simply using their power as a consumer and evaluating what’s behind specific products. If a citizen boycotts a certain consumer good because it has too much plastic, in the end industry will be forced to change because they can no longer sell their product. This, on a grand scale, will eventually see businesses make a positive change across the board. And this brings me to a point about the relationship between politics and business. When we make policy, we need to keep in mind that behind business there are jobs, so we need to communicate and work with rather than against business; otherwise, the reaction is that “you make us lose business, and jobs, and we can’t respond to your restricting policies”. To make effective change we all need to be sitting at the same table.
This year, the European Commission has released its strategy on plastics and put forward a proposal for a directive on single-use plastics. What are the measures proposed and what is the EU really capable of achieving in terms of fighting plastic pollution?
In the last two years, we’ve seen various coordinated actions from the EU. Last year we worked on the circular economy package, which doesn’t only deal with plastic but also with how we deal with the goods in our economy – their production, consumption, and recycling. The circle can be closed and waste reduced with regards to plastic. In January, there was the communication on the Commission’s plastic strategy. This is not a legislative proposal but rather a picture of what the EU wants to do in the coming years, a glimpse of the direction they want to go in. So, there are two important legislative proposals within the strategy that are currently under discussion: one on the use of plastic and another on the rules followed by ports in relation to sea waste. This is being worked on already, and it is important because the principle effects of plastic pollution happen at sea, and therefore there are a lot of possibilities for action with the sea when it comes to collecting waste.
Single-use plastic has recently been discussed in the environment committee. While it is quite positive, certain respects can be improved upon or be a bit more ambitious. For example, in the list of products that will be banned once the directive is approved, plastic coffee stirrers are included but cigarette filters are not. Recent WWF data shows that the most significant percentage of waste in the sea comes from cigarettes, so we should clearly intervene on that particular point. It is a good legislative proposal that the Parliament has put a lot of work into, but we can make it better, stronger, and maximise its impact on the most important regulations. Nevertheless, single-use plastics are one of the most harmful types of plastic and one of the main drivers of plastic waste, so it’s significant that the proposal is tackling them.
After France’s 2016 ban on disposable plastic items, European food packaging industry giant Pack2Go pushed for the EU to take legal action against France for breaching EU rules on the free movement of goods. Industry lobbies are powerful and growing as new legislation is underway. What are the main threats to legislation that effectively combats plastic waste?
Business obviously has its own interests and if decisions are imposed upon it, business can react badly and confront these decisions. They are looking to defend their own economic interests. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it happens.
If instead decisions are taken in a shared way, working with business so that regulations allow them to adapt their production cycle in a manner that arrives at the desired result, you avoid a negative reaction. This isn’t always possible, but all the same we should look to create policy that can be directly implemented, without having too many negative effects on jobs and the economy.
On the Mediterranean level, it’s very important that all the countries in the area work together.
Environmental regulations at the European level are usually pretty good, but where they fail in some way has to do with the relations between Member States. The directives and indications from the EU may be good, but then problems arise with Member States’ applications of these norms.
What are the prospects for progress on the plastics issue in the next few years at the EU level and beyond?
There is a lot on the table at the European level and once these legislative proposals become EU law, we should start to see positive outcomes. The main issue with the EU is the time it takes to take action. It needs to strive to do the most possible in a short amount of time in order to have results.
On the other hand, at the global level, European countries are not the main source of plastic waste. 65 to 70 per cent of plastic waste comes from developing countries. These countries are developing now like we did ourselves in the past and are not thinking about the effect on the environment. In some ways, they see this as their right, that it’s their turn to develop without worrying too much about the consequences. This is a problem that we often face, but we do have useful experiences with other marine resources such as fishing. On the Mediterranean level, it’s very important that all the countries in the area work together. The sea’s resources belong to everyone and are shared, so if we manage to make these countries understand that negative impacts on natural resources are bad for everyone, and not just for the EU, then we can manage to work together in a way that leads to solutions.
The EU can make a key contribution to solving this issue, but there is a lot of work to be done to ensure the cooperation of other nation states, and to ensure that there is coordinated action. It’s important for the EU to lead the way on this issue and bring other countries on board, as it has for other issues such as climate change.
Italy is one of the Mediterranean’s biggest polluters and one of Europe’s largest plastic producers, representing almost a quarter of Europe’s production in an industry employing 110 000 people, according to La Repubblica reports. Consumption of single-use plastics is driven by major industries such as the bottled water industry. What can we expect from the new Italian government and is it more realistic to fight plastic pollution in Italy on the level of producers or on the level of consumers?
We can do a lot with regards to both producers and consumers, but there needs to be political will to do so. In Italian debates in recent months and under our new coalition government, certain issues are neglected while others, such as immigration and our relationship with Europe, get a lot of attention. One part of the coalition, the Five Star Movement, has environmentalism in their DNA, but has forgotten this somewhat. Hopefully that will change, but now they are no longer so connected with environmental activism.
On the other hand, the Lega Nord has never been concerned with environmentalism. They have a completely different type of politics. Therefore, at this moment in Italy I see the country struggling to spontaneously put forward policies dealing with plastic and pollution. The new environment minister, Sergio Costa, has said he wants to make big forward strides on the issue of plastic and, based on his history and past, I’m tempted to believe that he has positive intentions. However, we are in the declaration phase of a new government, so it’s still too early to tell whether things are going well or badly. It is possible that Sergio Costa will be a positive outlier inside a governing team that has completely different ideas, ideals, and interests. If he is an independent agent in a government heading in a completely different direction, it will prove very complicated to accomplish the things he wants.
It’s important for the EU to lead the way on the plastics issue and bring other countries on board, as it has for other issues such as climate change.
That’s why it is so important that there are equal standards for everyone put in place at the European level, because now standards differ. For example, if a fishing industry worker in Italy finds waste and plastic at sea and takes it into port, they must pay for the waste disposal – which can be very expensive – even though they didn’t produce this waste, they just took it out of the sea. So, in order to not pay, they dump the plastic back into the sea. After all, it’s not right that they should pay for something that they have not produced. The EU’s legislative proposal to revise port regulations will touch upon this issue. At least in the proposal as it is now (we will see how it is after the work of the parliament), an established fishing industry worker will pay a fixed tax on waste in a port per year, meaning no matter how much waste they bring in, the tax will remain the same. Thus, workers have an incentive to bring in waste. There is also a provision in the regulations where Member States can give economic incentives to fishing industry workers based on the quantity of waste that they bring in.
In Italy there is a general problem of waste, and of differing waste collection systems. Can municipalities and cities in Italy make advances without a national government that supports them?
We have examples of virtuous municipalities that, due to their internal policies, have had extraordinary results. There are some in the north: Parma is one example where recycling rates have increased while overall waste has dropped significantly. Great results can be had at a local level, it’s a concrete fact. But it is also true that they operate in a national context where there are incentives for the use of incinerators and where the waste dump is thought of as the natural ending point for waste. There is not a real ecological direction in place in Italy towards a solution like the circular economy, or waste reduction. A single entity like a municipality can do a lot internally, but they can only remain impressive and effective experiments that have results on the local level. At the level of Italian politics, we are heading in the wrong direction.
Nonetheless, it is true that Italy must respect European regulations; if Europe goes forward on the legislative level, the impacts will also be felt in individual Member States. This is a longer and more cumbersome path, and it would be better if Italy had on its own enough political will to deal with these issues. But all the same, we must settle for strong European regulations that all Member States must respect, Italy included.